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Queen's University 

Reprinted from Queen's Quarterly 





FOR thirty-five years the late Sir Sandford Fleming was 
Chancellor of Queen's University. He was one of " the 
silent men who do things." The motto of his family was "Let 
the deed show," and he lived up to it. The extent and char- 
acter of the work that he wrought show more clearly than 
words what manner of man he was ; and what is here written 
of him is intended not as a life-sketch nor as an appraisal of 
his achievements, but rather as a tribute to his memory, 
reminiscent of personal intercourse and expressing, however 
inadequately, the affectionate esteem in which he was held by 
all connected with the University. 

Seventy years ago he came to Canada, a stalwart Scottish 
youth of eighteen, and there have been few whose lives have 
meant so much for the progress of our country. He brought 
with him some letters of introduction, among others one to 
Bishop Strachan, of Toronto, but the worthy bishop simply 
advised him to return to Scotland, so he sought his counsel no 
more. He brought with him also a spirit of sturdy independ- 
ence and of untiring energy, a resolute will to shape his own 
course, a heart that would prove brave and cheerful whatever 
might befall him. 

He used to recall with interest his early years in his birth- 
place, the "lang toun" of Kirkcaldy, where he attended the 
school in which Carlyle and Edward Irving had, in their youth, 
been teachers. He could not claim great progress in his 
classes until he took up mathematics, but when allowed to give 
up Latin for Geometry it seemed as if he had come into his 
own. While still a schoolboy he thought that the shoes made 
for him by the local shoemaker might fit him better if made 
upon a last more closely resembling the shape of his foot, so 
he carved out a last for himself. When, however, he took it 


for inspection and, as he vainly hoped, for future use, the old 
shoemaker after careful scrutiny merely said, "Eh, laddie, ye 
ha'e na' a souter's e'e." 

Before leaving Scotland young Fleming, in addition to his 
training in land-surveying and engineering, had acquired the 
love of solid reading and, although he did not take a University 
course, he made himself familiar with some of our best litera- 
ture. He was early taken with Carlyle, and a number of 
Queen's graduates may remember a meeting of the Alumni 
Conference some years ago at which, after a visiting professor 
had given a lecture on Carlyle, the Chancellor delighted the 
audience with an account of a personal interview with the 
author of Sartor Resartus. 

When he came to Canada his earliest work was land sur- 
veying, including surveys of Toronto, Peterboro and Coburg. 
Desiring to publish a map of Toronto which he had drawn 
with great care, and being unable to find a lithographer, he 
himself transferred the map to stone. This map is still pre- 
served in the Archives. 

The year of his arrival was marked by Government pro- 
vision for a geological survey of the country, and a good deal 
of general survey work was being carried on; but it was not 
until five years later that the first railway in Upper Canada 
was opened, and only in 1852 was construction work com- 
menced on the Grand Trunk. He had to wait for a time before 
the fitting opportunity offered ; but it came, and he was ready 
for it. Among the incidents of those earlier years which it 
gratified him to recall was the part he took, when on a visit 
to Montreal in 1849, in saving the portrait of Queen Victoria 
from destruction at the burning of the Parliament Buildings 
in that city. 

His first appointment in railway engineering was in con- 
nection with the Northern Railway, originally the Ontario, 
Simcoe and Huron road, now part of the Grand Trunk system. 
He became assistant engineer of this road in 1852 and chief 
engineer in 1857. While resident in Toronto he took a deep 
interest in the Canadian Institute, being connected with it from 
its foundation, in 1849, until the time of his death, and in its 
earlier years the active and efficient secretary. From time to 
time he contributed a number of valuable papers to the pro- 
ceedings of the Institute, and several of his more important 


projects were early submitted for the consideration of its 


Mr. Fleming never took any active part in politics. En- 
gaged for many years in Government service, he felt that it 
would be improper for him to become a partisan. None the 
less, however, he took a deep interest in matters affecting the 
public life of the country. To him it seemed clear thai our 
present representative system needs to be greatly modified if 
the aims and benefits of government by the people and for the 
people are to be fully secured. The minority of voters, how- 
ever numerous, is not adequately represented in Parliament. 
He tried ? therefore, "to devise a scheme of electoral repre- 
sentation, by which the whole electorate may be equally recog- 
nized in one deliberative body and every elector may have an 
equitable share through Parliament in the general adminis- 
tration of public affairs." Like some others, however, who 
have wrestled with this problem, he found it difficult to per- 
suade men that there was any practical injustice in the present 
party system, so that there was little response to his efforts 
beyond some academic approval of his views. At the same 
time it seems almost certain that this question of improved 
electoral representation must press for solution in the future, 
and it illustrates the Chancellor's breadth of sympathy and of 
vision to find him treating this subject with marked knowledge 
and ability. 

He carried to more successful issue the consideration of 
some practical scientific problems. One of these was the 
selection of a prime meridian to be common to all nations in 
connection with the reckoning of time. Greenwich time had 
long been the standard time in Great Britain, but it was largely 
by his indefatigable efforts that influential individuals and 
scientific societies throughout Europe and America were in- 
duced to urge their respective Governments to adopt the 
meridian of Greenwich as the initial meridian common to all 

The working out of this change is illustrated in the nota- 
tion of time on a transcontinental railway such as the C.P.R. 
It would be intolerably confusing to through travel to adjust 
the arrival and departure of trains to the correct solar time at 
every station along the line, and it would be almost equally 
impracticable to carry Halifax time right through to Van- 


couver. The system adopted is to divide the entire country 
into five sections, according to degrees of longitude. Each of 
these sections has its own uniform time and in each the time 
is one hour different from that which prevails in the next 
section, so that in going westward you have Atlantic time at 
Halifax, Eastern time at Montreal, Central time at Winnipeg, 
Mountain time at Calgary, and Pacific time at Vancouver, 
there being thus five hours' difference between the time in the 
Atlantic section and that in the Pacific section. Of course, at 
each dividing line between the several sections it involves the 
keeping up two separate notations with one hour's difference 
between the two, but this is a very slight inconvenience com- 
pared with the great advantage secured in the general system 
of time-reckoning; and yet it required much persuasion to 
introduce the change, and Sir Sandford, who was mainly re- 
sponsible for the new system, published many pamphlets 
before the public were persuaded to adopt it. 

For eighteen years he made his home in Toronto, steadily 
increasing his reputation as a railway engineer, until in 1863 
by the united action of the Imperial and Colonial governments 
he was appointed Engineer-in-Chief of the Intercolonial Rail- 
way, which was to connect Halifax with Quebec, the first link 
of a railway system that would extend from the Atlantic to 
the Pacific within British territory. Before entering on his 
new duties he refreshed his soul by revisiting his native land, 
his first return since he left it as a lad. To the close of his life 
he used to recall the memories of that visit and renew its 
bright experiences, made all the brighter by coming as a break 
in the strenuous work with which his years were being filled. 
He took occasion while in Britain to fulfil a request made by 
the people of the Red River Settlement, in urging the Imperial 
authorities to open railway communication between the Red 
River (now part of Manitoba) and the old Province of Canada. 
This was his first effort in the interests of the great prairie 
country with which he was years afterwards to be so closely 
connected, and although at the time it seemed ineffectual, yet 
it may have served to draw the attention of the Home Govern- 
ment to possibilities that should later on be realized in the 

Returning from his visit to the Mother Country, he took 
up the great enterprise of the Intercolonial Railway. It was a 


task that challenged and rewarded his skill, experience and 
courage, and he has himself told the story of it in one of the 
most masterly reports ever submitted to Parliament. In one 
of his books giving the record of a journey from Old to New 
Westminster, he draws a parallel between the life of the engi- 
neer and that of the soldier. "In both," he says, "privations 
and hardships are endured. In both self-sacrifice is called for. 
In both special qualities are demanded to gain desired results ; 
and the possessors of them for a time obtain prominence, to 
pass out of mind with the necessity for their service, and to 
be forgotten and uncared for." 

He was himself essentially a man of peace, although he 
raised a company of the 10th Royals, in Toronto, during the 
"Trent" affair; yet he had the qualities of a true fighter — 
strength, courage, self-mastery, tenacity, patience, cheerful- 
ness, with a keen sense of honour. But his battles were hard 
fought victories over vast physical obstacles. He had a bold 
imagination combined with a ready power of cool and sober 
calculation, and he dared to picture to himself and to pro- 
nounce possible a railway spanning Canada from sea to sea, 
threading its way even through our western sea of mountains, 
which other great engineers before him had pronounced 
impracticable. Poet he was in the real sense of the word — a 
doer, a maker, a creator — for he could not only see bright 
visions but could give them bodily shape that others might see 
and enjoy and be blessed by them. And he had the power to 
tell the story of his battles, for he acquired a style of writing 
that made even dry details interesting, and in his reports one 
always finds, among other good features, the due acknowledg- 
ment of the work of other men, whether these had been earlier 
pioneers or fellow-labourers under his own direction. 

During the earlier part of his connection with the I.C.R. — 
from 1863 till 1869 — he made his home in Halifax, and al- 
though in the latter year he removed to Ottawa, yet he con- 
tinued for the remainder of his life to have his summer home 
in the city by the sea, to which he was very strongly attached. 
That attachment was very specially expressed not long before 
his death in the gift to the City of Halifax of his extensive and 
valuable property, "The Dingle", on the banks of the North 
West Arm, to be used as a public park. It was on the highest 
point of The Dingle, a site most suitable for the purpose, that 


he erected the unique memorial tower which commemorates 
the origin of representative government in Nova Scotia. From 
all portions of the Empire sculptured slabs were contributed 
for decorating the interior of this tower, and the structure 
stands not only as a memorial that Nova Scotia was the first 
part of the British Empire outside the Mother Country to 
enjoy representative government, but also as a permanent 
expression of the patriotic spirit that erected it. When Sir 
Sandforcl went to Halifax, the late Principal Grant was min- 
ister of St. Matthew's Church in that city, and there began the 
friendship between those two that grew ever stronger as life 
wore on. Forty years later when the Principal passed away, 
his old friend, under that sense of solitariness that comes with 
advancing age, remarked, "He was the last of my friends ac- 
customed to call me by my first name." 

Of the Intercolonial Railway which absorbed his attention 
during his residence in Halifax, no detailed account can here 
be given. When, on its completion, in 1876, he submitted to 
Parliament his report of its construction he wrote, "Thirteen 
years have passed since my first appointment as Chief Engi- 
neer — a duty assigned to me by the Imperial and Provincial 
Governments at the commencement of the survey. At that 
period, a long tract of wilderness separated the Maritime from 
the Inland provinces. The railway which now connects them, 
I may venture to assert, will rank second to none on this con- 
tinent. In the embellishments of its structures it may be sur- 
passed by the lines of the old world, but in the essentials of a 
railway it will, when entirely completed, have no superior. . . 
It realizes the national aspirations of half a century by bring- 
ing within a few hours the old fortress of Halifax and the 
older Citadel of Quebec, and it must form an important section 
of the railway destined, ere long, to extend from East to West 
through the entire Dominion." 

In 1871, while the Intercolonial was still under construc- 
tion, Sir Sandford was appointed Engineer-in-Chief to conduct 
surveys for the Canadian Pacific Railway. If one wishes to 
form some idea of the labour involved in those earlier surveys 
let him read the report submitted to Parliament, in 1877, of 
the survey work conducted during the preceding six years. 
The country to be examined extended from the Ottawa Valley 
to the Pacific. It was divided into three sections, the Wood- 


land, the Prairie, and the Mountain Regions. The Woodland, 
or Eastern Region, extended from Ottawa to Winnipeg; the 
Prairie, or Central Region, from Winnipeg to the Rocky Moun- 
tains; the Mountain, or Western Region, from the Rockies I" 
the Pacific. 

Regarding many portions of the country, especially in the 
Eastern and Western Regions, no information was available 
at the beginning of the survey. So far as known, for instance, 
no civilized man had ever yet passed from the Upper Ottawa 
through the intervening wilderness to Lake Superior. Even 
where some routes of communication had been opened, they 
could not be used for a railway line. The Central Region was 
already more familiar, as there were numerous prairie trails, 
but the whole vast expanse of country had to be gone over to 
determine the most practicable route. As for the Western 
Region, pass after pass through the several chains of moun- 
tains had to be examined and the possibilities linked up in 
order that some feasible through line might be discovered. 

For those of us who have had no experience in prospect- 
ing and surveying, it is quite impossible to realize the labour 
involved in examining such a vast territory and determining, 
from all the mass of accumulated information, the most prac- 
ticable route to be adopted. To read the detailed report of 
such a work increases one's admiration for the master mind 
that could grasp and solve the many problems presented by it, 
and at the same time deepens one's gratitude to the brave and 
patient workers who have made transcontinental travel 

In the second year of the survey the Engineer-in-Chief 
traversed the route from Lake Superior to the Pacific that 
seemed likely to prove the best for the railway. He took with 
him a small party, and the record of their journey is given in 
Ocean to Ocean, by Dr. Grant, who acted as Secretary. No 
other book in all our Canadian literature had such a wide and 
speedy influence. It was a revelation regarding the vast 
heritage into which as a people we had entered, full of just 
such information as we required, answering our questions 
before we asked them, lit up by the vision of the seer and the 
enthusiasm of the patriot, and fitted to quicken the heart-throb 
of every Canadian. The possibility of constructing the pro- 
jected railway had been determined; it remained for the Par- 


liament and people to fulfil the gigantic task. Years must 
elapse, indeed, before all details of route could be decided, and 
further years be spent in construction. Changes were adopted 
in the route from that first recommended, and the construction, 
instead of being carried on by Government, was entrusted to 
a Company. The Engineer-in-Chief resigned in 1880, but at 
the urgent request of the Directors he, again accompanied by 
Principal Grant, made the journey across British Columbia 
in 1883 to report on the southern route which had been selected. 
They travelled by rail to Calgary, the furthest point then 
reached in the construction, and with no little toil and hardship 
followed the course of the present line to the Pacific. As a 
member of the Board of Directors, Sir Sandford had the 
supreme gratification of being present when, on the 7th 
November, 1885, the last spike was driven at Craigellachie by 
his old friend, Sir Donald A. Smith (Lord Strathcona), and 
his early vision was realized of a completed railway crossing 
Canada from sea to sea. 

In connection with the widely-extended and prolonged 
survey work to which reference has been made, and which was 
absolutely required before construction could begin, it deserves 
to be noticed, as illustrating his character, how the Engineer- 
in-Chief considered the higher interests of those under his 
command. He was a devout man, and he desired that others 
should have the freedom and benefit of those religious privi- 
leges which were so dear to himself. In his Old and New 
Westminster, in an account of his journey across the country 
in 1883, he writes, "In all well-ordered expeditions Sunday is 
a day of rest. ... It is as if you held it a privilege in these 
remote mountains to pay homage to the lessons of your youth, 
not from the merely mechanical acceptance of them but from 
a heart-felt sense of their truth. . . You seem as it were at 
such times only to commune with nature and to be free from 
all that is false and meretricious in our civilization. You are 
beyond the struggles and petty personalities of the world, and 
you feel how really and truly life is better and happier as it 
is more simple." 

In harmony with this sentiment, at the outset of his ar- 
rangements for the C.P.R. Survey, he strongly desired that the 
men engaged in that work — some 20 or 25 parties, consisting 
of 20 or 25 men in each — should, if possible, have some form of 


Sabbath service provided in which, if so inclined, they might 
unite. To this end he consulted with three clerical friends, 
representing the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian 
Churches, who drew up for him a Service which they thought 
suitable for the purpose. He had it printed in pamphlet form 
and distributed among his various surveying parties. The 
men gratefully availed themselves of it and, after using it for 
over a year, asked that it might be enlarged and made more 
varied and comprehensive. This led to the issue of a small 
volume, entitled Sunday Services for Travellers, containing 
prayers, responsive Scripture readings and a brief selection of 
hymns. The little book, primarily intended for the Surveying 
parties, came to be used by others also, sometimes by visitors 
at summer resorts, and it even found its way to scattered 
hamlets in Australia. 

Sir Sandford, while devoutly attached to the Church of 
his fathers, would have welcomed the use of an optional liturgy, 
feeling that great care should be taken in that which is the 
loftiest utterance of human sentiment, the public expression 
of united prayer to God. He compiled a small volume for 
family worship under the title Brief Prayers for Busy House- 
holds, and he took an active part, as a member of the Presby- 
terian Church Committee, in preparing a book of Aids to 
Social Worship. Only those who were most familiar with him 
could be aware of the strong faith, the steady spiritual force 
that sustained him amid the strain of life's activities. 

He was always an ardent Imperialist, and any effort by 
which he could advance the interests of the empire was with 
him a labour of love. In this spirit he threw himself heart and 
soul into the task of securing telegraphic connection between 
Canada and Australia by means of the Pacific Cable, spending 
time and energy and much of his private means on its accom- 
plishment. Whoever may have originated the idea and how- 
ever many may have assisted in the project, the persistent 
advocacy of it and its final success were undoubtedly due to 
him. There were many difficulties to be overcome. Great 
opposition was shown by the Eastern Telegraph Company. 
which held a practical monopoly of telegraphic communication 
with Australia and was strongly intrenched among British 
capitalists. The Governments of Canada, Australia and New 
Zealand, as well as the Imperial Government, had to be per- 


suaded into the adoption and support of the scheme. Details 
of route, of maintenance and of control had to be arranged. 
It required years of patient, unrelaxing effort before the 
dream was realized. 

One instance may illustrate the spirit with which that 
effort was maintained. As the line was to be entirely British, 
the points of landing must be on British territory. It was 
necessary to secure a landing at some point between Canada 
and Fiji, and, as the Hawaiian Islands were not British ter- 
ritory, no place there was available for the purpose. The 
choice lay between Fanning Island and Necker Island, Necker 
being decidedly the more suitable of the two and, up to that 
time, a no-man's-land, unclaimed by any power. It would 
seem to be a simple thing, and legitimate as it was simple, for 
Britain to plant her flag on this uninhabited rocky island, but 
the British Government could not be persuaded to take this 
step. Months of fruitless negotiations were spent in the effort 
to secure this, until at last Sir Sandford, being reminded of 
the way in which the Island of Perim became British through 
the bold act of the Governor of Aden, resolved to try if private 
enterprise might succeed where the Government failed to take 
action. Accordingly he commissioned, at his own expense, a 
retired naval officer to go to Honolulu, charter some craft, 
either steamer or sailing vessel, proceed to Necker Island, hoist 
the British flag and thus claim possession for the Empire. The 
mission was to be a secret one, but the agent consulted in 
Honolulu was acting British consul there, and the officer com- 
missioned by Sir Sandford was prevented from proceeding 
until permission had been given by the Imperial Government. 
That permission could not be obtained, so that the scheme for 
annexing Necker Island failed, and soon afterwards the Pro- 
visional Government of Hawaii took possession of it. Sir 
Sandford, somewhat disappointed, fell back upon Fanning 
Island, but there was something of the spirit of the Elizabethan 
empire builders in his effort to acquire the better landing. 

The Pacific Cable, although in itself a great enterprise, 
was only part of a more comprehensive scheme which he advo- 
cated for telegraphic communication throughout the Empire. 
He was anxious to see a line laid from Western Australia 
across the Indian Ocean to Africa, and from Cape Town, by 
way of St. Helena and Bermuda, to Britain, thus completing 


a world-encircling system that should at every point of land 
communication be on British territory. The scheme is not 
now likely to be carried out, as wireless telegraphy h;i 
largely superseded ocean cables. 

The Pacific Cable, however, serves only a part of the pur- 
pose contemplated by its chief promoter. Often while advo- 
cating it, and frequently since its completion, he drew attention 
to the great service it might be made to render in bringing 
Canada and Australia into closer intimacy. The cable is used 
for commercial purposes not more than six hours out of 
twenty-four. As it is maintained by the Governments of Great 
Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, might it not be 
used daily for transmitting press messages, conveying the 
latest news of general importance, messages compiled by duly 
appointed agents and available at a nominal cost for the news- 
papers of the countries concerned? The different parts of our 
Empire need to know each other more intimately. It should 
be possible to have this knowledge from day to day presented 
through the press at very moderate cost, and to this end the 
Pacific Cable might be of constant public service. 

It was fitting that one who had achieved so much should 
be recognized by learned societies, and also by his Sovereign. 
Several distinguished Universities conferred upon him honor- 
ary degrees. Scientific Associatons in Europe and in America 
enrolled him in their membership. The Government of Canada 
entrusted him with various important commissions. He was 
created by Queen Victoria a Companion of the Order of St. 
Michael and St. George in 1877 and a Knight Commander of 
the same Order in the year of Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee. 

But while Sir Sandford's name must for others be special- 
ly associated with the great enterprises which have been 
referred to, we at Queen's must always think of him as our 
own beloved Chancellor. He was elected in 1880, the Rev. Dr. 
Cook having been his only predecessor in office, and Queen's 
would have no other Chancellor as long as it was possible to 
re-elect him. 

While Queen's delighted to give him the highest honour 
she could yield, he, on his part, greatly enjoyed his connection 
with the University. It brought him into very close associa- 
tion with his intimate and distinguished friend, Princpal 
Grant. They had been like brothers from the old Halifax 


days, when they were in their early prime. They were linked 
together by many ties. They had been fellow-travellers under 
conditions that gave them fullest knowledge of each other, and 
fellow-labourers in fields of work where frequently the one 
supplied what the other lacked. They differed widely in tem- 
perament, yet they had many qualities in common, cherishing 
the same lofty ideals of life and duty and equally devoted to 
Canada and to the Empire. Queen's was rich, passing rich, 
in having two such men, each preeminent in his own profes- 
sion, working together in the fullness of their strength to 
promote her welfare, and successive generations of students 
felt the uplift of their character and life. 

And the Chancellor enjoyed his connection with Queen's 
because of the opportunities it gave him of meeting with the 
Staff and students. It had always been a regret to him that 
he never had the benefit of a University training, but few men 
more completely made up by personal effort for that earlier 
disadvantage. He was a great reader, a well-balanced thinker, 
an extensive writer, and, although not accustomed to public 
speaking, he could express himself by his pen with rare clear- 
ness and force. His wide knowledge, his varied experience of 
men and of travel, and his kindly humour gave a distinct 
charm to his conversation, and his intercourse with members 
of the Staff of Queen's was to him a source of genuine enjoy- 
ment. His interest in the students made his visits to the 
University still more attractive to him. He frequently refer- 
red to the impression made upon him at successive convoca- 
tions by the sight of so many young men going out year after 
year to face the conflict of life, and he was deeply affected by 
their respectful silence when he addressed them, knowing that 
in these later years his voice could not be distinctly heard in 
Convocation Hall. 

But greater even than the pleasure of being closely asso- 
ciated in his office at Queen's with his dear friend, Principal 
Grant, and of enjoying intercourse with members of the Staff, 
was the satisfaction he felt in sharing in the work of the 
University. He appreciated the influence of a strong Univer- 
sity upon the welfare of the nation. He recognized in what 
varied ways and to what a wide extent it touches the life of 
the people by training so many of those who must, in course of 
time, affect public opinion and public conduct. He felt that it 


was well worth while for any man who cared for his country 
to do what he could for the efficiency of some one of its univer- 
sities, and circumstances had led him to cast his contribution 
of service on behalf of Queen's. The extent and value of that 
contribution must be measured not by material standards. 
Tangible gifts, however great or frequent, are not the greatest 
of a good man's benefactions. Nobility of character, purity 
of conduct, breadth of sympathy and unselfishness of service 
are more precious and more powerful as affecting the spirit 
of a University than gifts of money alone. And these 
were brought to bear by the Chancellor in affecting the spirit 
of Queen's. We cannot measure in this respect the debt we 
owe to him, but we gratefuly recognize it, and so long as 
Queen's endures his name will be remembered and his memory 
revered. "Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man 
fallen this day in Israel? " 

Daniel M. Gordon. 

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